BBC Symphony Orchestra/Garry Walker [David Fennessy … Gwyn Pritchard … Matthew Taylor]

The Firmament of Time [world premiere]
Symphony No.2 [world premiere]

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Garry Walker

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 23 January, 2009
Venue: BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London

This studio concert featured three works by composers of the younger and middle generations. Much the longest was the Second Symphony by Matthew Taylor (born 1964) which, though designated as 2008, dates at least in part to the beginning of the 1990s and, following revision, was receiving its first performance. Alone of Taylor’s three symphonies to date, this is scored for full orchestra – with three percussionists and a prominent piano part – and falls into four movements.

Commissioned by the gynaecologist Ian Craft (who previously commissioned Robert Simpson’s Sixth Symphony), the piece seeks to equate a process of musical evolution with that of embryonic growth. In the first two movements at least, this works soundly: the opening movement builds from a powerful but never portentous opening – vividly scored and also throwing up a number of salient motifs – to a propulsive Vivace (and reminding one that Simpson’s masterly Ninth Symphony was then a new work), before climaxing in the heightened return of the opening then dying down for a coda whose calm yet intense expectancy brings the most attesting music of the whole work. The scherzo that follows is demonstrably of the Beethoven-Simpson axis in its unbridled energy; two more-lightly scored episodes functioning ostensibly as trio sections, and with a coda that deftly dispels accumulated momentum.

If the latter movements are less successful, this is perhaps because the needs of accommodating the work’s underlying ‘conception’ with an organic symphonism proved inhibiting. Certainly the slow movement opens with a ruminative inwardness that is impressively sustained through to the agitated central section; this latter, however, tending to disrupt rather than intensify the Lento music, whose return consequently lacks formal or expressive focus. The emergence of the finale seems less than inevitable in its continuity and while this latter movement has the necessary emotional weight, taking in a more tranquil section that affords some of the work’s most subtle orchestration, the eventual culmination feels too contrived to clinch the symphonic argument: the final chords an attempted synthesis of Waltonian and Simpsonian gestures that fails to confirm the desired sense of arrival.

The 37-minute work was given a confident and assured first hearing by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Garry Walker with a conviction and spontaneity that hardly suggested a piece whose gestation has been so prolonged. It received an enthusiastic reception – prompting once more the thought that if orchestral concerts are to enjoy a long-term future, then works which evince the formal scope and emotional inclusiveness of Taylor’s Second Symphony will need to play their part.

Earlier, Gwyn Pritchard’s The Firmament of Time (2008) had also been given its first performance. Taking its cue from lines in Shelley’s “Adonais”, as refracted through the title of a book by American scientist and poet Loren Eiseley, this 20-minute piece is on one level a study in timbre and texture – though one whose constituents are kept in purposeful, even ceaseless transformation. And, though the composer emphasised the primacy of the work’s macro- as opposed to its micro-evolution, the correlation of incidental detail within the overall picture was finely controlled and not lacking in expressive immediacy; with an occasional tendency for percussion to obscure the music’s unfolding being the only audible pitfall. An unfailingly persuasive performance, moreover, reinforced the feeling that Pritchard (born 1948) deserves to be a more familiar name on the contemporary music scene.

And to begin proceedings, David Fennessy’s Dead-End (1999) received a well-merited revival. Over barely four minutes, the final chord or gesture of 100 compositions – each completed in a year from 1900 to 1999 – were heard in chronological order: the outcome less a musical tour of the twentieth-century than one in which the idea of endings and beginnings became one and the same. Never mind questions of ‘borrowed’ material: this is one dead-end whose outcome is by no means a cul-de-sac.

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